John and I have just returned from seeing a terrific student production of my play Valhalla, in New Haven. The production was a senior project for Spencer Klavan, who played James Avery, director Irene Casey and set designer Maggie Ditre. Everyone involved did a great job, and I enjoyed revisiting the play.
Valhalla is tricky – it’s a comic epic which entwines the lives of the fictional James Avery, a wild Texas teenager from the 1940s, and Mad King Ludwig (pictured above), who filled Bavaria with his extraordinary storybook castles. Both characters share a passionate longing for escape and beauty, which imperils everyone around them.
It would be foolish to try and recreate the grandeur of Ludwig’s palaces onstage, so the play focuses on their emotional impact. The play works best when it’s performed simply and swiftly, and the Yale production used an ideal unit set, of platforms surrounded by a series of intricate boxes, inspired by the work of Louise Nevelson, another appropriately grand eccentric. If you’d like a modern equivalent of Ludwig, try this:
Valhalla’s been produced everywhere from Dallas to Edinborough, and it features one of my favorite scenes from all of my plays. It’s an oddly romantic, moonlit meeting in a forest, between a suicidal Ludwig and an equally despairing, humpbacked Princess Sophie. The photo below is from the original production of the play, directed by Chris Ashley at the New York Theater Workshop.The heavenly Peter Frechette played Ludwig, and the blissful Samantha Soule was Sophie. You can’t see Sophie’s hump in this photo but trust me, it was substantial.
Ludwig brings out the neglected beauty in Sophie, who’s always considered herself to be hideous. Most of the details in the play are historically accurate, although the actual Sophie wasn’t a humpback. She wasn’t a humpback in the earliest drafts of the play either, but I decided that the character needed some greater challenge. I remember the day when I brought this scene to rehearsal, and Samantha looked at me like I was crazy, and then she proceeded to be brilliant, at one point using the pistol to scratch her hump. Towards the end of the scene a now exultant Sophie exclaims, “What an incredible day! Just this morning I was the loneliest humpback in Europe.” To which Pfeiffer, a royal advisor, responds, “Was there a contest?”
Samantha also played Sally Mortimer,the prettiest girl in the very small town of Dainsville, Texas. Here she is with Sean Dugan, who played James. At one point Sally decides that, “Inner beauty is tricky, because you can’t prove it.”